Godfrew sat in the trees and watched. While the hamlet lazed in the sun, unsuspecting, smoke curled from the cottages as wives prepared the evening meal. Children played in the dirt or tried to catch a goat to ride.
"That tall boy. He has some 'go'. He must have run a mile trying to get that Billy goat. Mind, when he does, he won't like it. I can smell that Billy from here, and I ain't got a good nose!" Dunstan, big and solid, spoke with the same flat, clipped, north Surrey accent as Godfrew.
Dunstan spoke often of his time with the Godwinsons: of Swein, Harold, Tostig and Wufnoth. Dunstan was a talker. He spoke of the time in Ireland when Earl Godwin and his sons were exiled, of the trouble between Swein and his cousin Beorn, of the wars against the Welsh when he served with Harold before he became king, and of much more. He talked when others were interested. He talked when they were not. The others joked that he even talked when he was alone. Godfrew had verified this when he heard him talking when no one else was around.
Clunn, almost the exact physical opposite of Dunstan, spat on the ground in front of his feet, then kicked dust to cover the gob. "You haven't got a good nose, our Dunstan. In fact, you haven't got a good anything. Even your willie is shrivelled." Clunn smiled a yellow-toothed smile, his thick beard a blend of black and dark auburn.
"Yes, but even shrivelled, it's more than twice the size of yours, you little black rat."
"That's 'cos I put it to constant use. It's getting worn down." Clunn pulled his threadbare, battered-pointed wool hat down over his eyes and settled down to pass the time away in comfort. "I bet it gets more use than yours does."
"Ah, maybe now, with my current missus. When I was living with my lovely Adia, things were different. She loved me, that one did would do anything for me. I just wish I hadn't been so stupid and started chasing my current missus. I still hear from her sometimes, you know my first missus, Adia. I'm sure she would have me back, it's that evil old father of hers that's ..."
"Dunstan," Godfrew stopped Dunstan from telling the story of his life for the umpteenth time since they had started this trip a month ago. "Do me a favour and check young Ragnor and Tosti. Make sure they are watching where the village men are and where the animals are kept. Check to see that they are out of sight."
"Right. Oh, Wulf. One thing."
"You know thing, Stanley."
"What about Stanley?"
"Thing you know, is he supposed to be watching as well or, you know thing?"
Godfrew had soon learnt that all conversations with Dunstan involved an element of guess work. "He is with Bjorn the Wainwright and Dagobert the Lathe-maker, getting things ready."
"Dagobert? Oh yes, thing, Dragon's-breath." Dunstan gave his slow smile "Fancy having a nick-name of Dragon's-breath. Serves him right for eating onions all the time, but fancy having to live with that name."
"Fancy being called Dunstan," chipped in Clunn. "Dirty stones, maybe, if you washed them now and again you would be called Britstan. Maybe that was why your first wife left you because you never washed your stones!" Clunn stayed where he was, but braced himself in case Dunstan made a dive for him.
"Dunstan." Godfrew watched the big Surrey man. "Leave him and see to the others. Go now."
Dunstan moved off with an occasional backward glance. "Dirty little rat, he's only got one stone to wash anyway. If he doesn't watch his tongue, he won't have any stones to wash."
"I wore it out, which is more than can be said for yours!" Clunn called after the Surrey man.
Godfrew watched Dunstan go, then grabbed Clunn's beard, taking a handful of whiskers on either cheek "Clunn, you evil rat, save the fighting for the Normans." Godfrew shook Clunn's face by the whiskers. Clunn smiled and laughed. Godfrew pulled his beard a bit harder: "You really are a rat."
"Normans, Saxons, wogs who cares who the fight is against. I'm only in it for the fun."
Godfrew noticed that Clunn's teeth were not only yellow, but also pointed like a rat's. "When you are with me, you fight only who I say you fight. Do you understand, rat?"
"Squeak, squeak, Master Wulf."
Godfrew let him go and sat back on his haunches. "Do you only have one stone, or is that just another taunt?"
"Only one. It's all I need. Didn't wear it out, though. Well, only in a way. I was a bit late in leaving when a certain house carl came home to perform his marital duties. He sort of insisted I left him with a keepsake."
"You can joke about it?
"Well, I left him with another keepsake. That keepsake is five summers old this year. He thinks his wife was delivered three months early! Silly bastard."
"You really are a little rat."
"Into any little hole that presents itself, or any big hole, if it comes to that. I ain't fussy."
"God preserve us. Just behave yourself on this raid. I want confusion and alarm, not terror and men of mine leaving intimate bits and pieces behind."
Clunn picked up his fallen hat and replaced it. After getting his hat settled, Clunn nestled back into his bush. "Yes, Master Wulf. Anything you say, Master Wulf."
"Sweet dreams, Master Rat."
"Dirty dreams, Master Wulf."
Godfrew made his way back through the trees to the small clearing where Bjorn and the others were working on a hay wain. Bjorn looked up from his work. "Are you sure you want to do this, Wulf? There are other places around here we could do easier. It's an awful lot of trouble for such a poor place." Despite his seeming concern about the venture, Bjorn picked up another wooden dowel and hammered it into place with his leather mallet.
"Yes, this is the place. Earl Edric wants certain people harassed and I want to harass Normans. This place fits both bills." Godfrew lowered himself down by bending his knees and keeping his back straight.
"I supposed so." Bjorn hammered in another dowel. "Just seems a lot of work for very little return."
"Can I do that?" Stanley, bright eyed and eager as a puppy, held the final wooden dowel and put his hand out for the mallet.
"Oh, I think I'd better do it. I want it to be a proper job." Bjorn took the dowel and hammered it home "Yes, I suppose that will do." He stood back and ran his eye over the hay wain. "When do you want to go, Wulf?"
Godfrew looked up, shielding his eye against the sun with his hand. "Twilight."
"Seems a bit late to me. Dragon's-breath, what do you think?"
"Whatever the master says. It's his plan." Blond, amiable Dragon's-breath continued sharpening the edge of his sword with a whetstone.
"I think its a good plan," added the still eager Stanley.
"You haven't been around long in this game. Leave it too late and you might as well not bother. I'm not sure why I am bothering this time. I've been on too many of these outings as it is. I have other things that interest me now. I should have given up raiding years ago." Bjorn started to collect his tools together and put them into his leather carry-all bag.
"The Earl told me that I would need a skilled man like you, Bjorn the wainwright," Godfrew remained squatting. "The next time, we may be all right on our own, but this time I need you."
"I suppose so. What nags have we got to pull this thing, Dragon's-breath?"
"I'd offer my horse, but she's a bit unused to pulling wains." Dunstan reappeared from the bushes where he had gone to relieve himself.
"I don't think that would be any good. Dragon's-breath?"
Bjorn dropped his bag on the ground just in front of Dragon's-breath who seemed to have drifted off into a world of his own. The strokes of the whetstone on his sword became an automatic movement.
"What? Oh, horses. Well, mine is used to pulling and I think Stanley's is too."
"Yes, mine is good with wagons and carts. In fact ..." Stanley started to say, but he was overridden by Bjorn.
"I suppose it will have to be my poor old nag again ... it is well past its time. When it dies, I won't replace it. I'll give up the raiding then." Bjorn wandered off in search of his horse.
Godfrew saw the disappointment in Stanley's young face. "Stanley, you can ride with me. It will be far better than having to hide in the false floor of the hay wain." Stanley rewarded Godfrew with a smile. "Dunstan." Godfrew turned to face the big man. "How goes it with the watchers?"
"Fine just fine. Those lazy beggars like sitting on their arses all day watching other people work. No, thing."
"Thing? Where are you going to go? I think you are too big for the false bottom. Can you drive a wain?"
"Yes, I can drive one all right. When I was with Earl Tostig on the last campaign, I drove for days. King Harold-or Earl Harold, as he was then-travelled down the coast by sea whilst his brother, Earl Tostig, came down the mountains. That was a campaign, that was. The wogs didn't know what hit 'em. Travelled light, we did."
"But you drove a wain?" Stanley was the only one of the band that could never get enough of Dunstan's battle stories, though even he shied away from the more convoluted tales of Dunstan's domestic problems.
"Most were on horse well, those stunted little ponies the wogs use. But we had to have some transport for the plunder. I must have travelled hundreds of miles. You should have seen the problems we had with those mountains. Why, one occasion ...."
"Dunstan." Godfrew broke the flow of words. "Finish the tale later. Check the lads and send one of them back for something to eat. When he returns, send the other. You can eat when they are both back on watch."
"Yes. Well me I can never eat before a fight. Now Earl Tostig, he could eat a whole cow and never worry. Me I wait until it's all over. My guts, they play me up."
"Your guts play you up all right. They overhang your belt so much I wonder they don't trip you up at times." Dragon's-breath added his words of wisdom and then went back into his dream world.
"At least I've got guts, Dragon's-breath. I have yet to see yours." Dunstan went off to double check Ragnor and Tosti. Dragon's-breath did not hear what had been said, being fully engrossed in sharpening his sword.
"Food. Stanley. Dragon's-breath. Bjorn." Godfrew made to the tail-gate of the hay wain, where a jug of cider, a wheel of cheese and some flat, coarse bread lay.
"Just a little bread." Bjorn tore a hand-sized piece off of the loaf and went off to sit with his back to the wain's wheel, where he commenced to morosely chew it.
"Not for me." Stanley was already pulling on a sheep-skin coat, wool inside. "Later, after it is over." He looked up from tying the coat with a large battered leather belt. "Nerves." He looked apologetic. "Sorry."
"We are all different," Godfrew reassured him. "Dragon's-breath? Food?" There was no reply from the man, so Godfrew left him in peace sharpening his sword.
"Food? Did I smell food?" Clunn forced his way through the bushes and joined Godfrew at the tail-board. "Cut me a bit piece of cheese."
"Rats like eating cheese?" joked Godfrew.
"Almost as much as suckling soft breasts. Now, a hunk of the bread if you please, Master Wulf." He took the proffered food. "Excellent. Cider?" The question was accompanied by a blast of cheese fragments as yellow as Clunn's teeth. "Cleans the pallet to make ready for the next taste." Clunn tipped the jug right back and a trickle of golden fluid escaped, running down his chin and into his beard. "Got any apples? No? Well maybe we'll get some from the hamlet tonight." He took another swig. "And maybe we will get other tasty morsels as well."
"Just remember what I said, Rat," Godfrew took the cider jug back, "and ease off the drink."
"Hardly wet my whistle. Hey, Dragon's-breath." Clunn nudged the man none too gently. "Sharpen my weapon, too?"
"If you wish." Dragon's-breath lay his own sword down and held out his hands for Clunn's. Clunn started to drop his breeches. "Oh, no, not that dirty old thing. If you kept it out of damp places, it wouldn't get so rusty."
"Rust?" Clunn looked into his breeches "Is that all it is? Thank God. I thought I had the French pox!"
"French pox will make your willie go green and yellow," informed Bjorn.
"Mine is green and yellow," insisted Clunn "I had it painted those colours so that any innocent maid seeing it lying alongside her would think it an adder."
"That would be an advantage, Rat?" asked Godfrew
"Of course. If she thinks it an adder, she would durst not move for fear of being bitten. Nor would she be surprised if it hid in a dark, damp place." Clunn cut off another piece of cheese and munched it with relish.
"How you can eat with the same hands that have touched that foul thing, I'll never know." Dragon's-breath picked up a piece of oily sheep skin and commenced to wipe his sword blade clean.
Ragnor Redhead slipped up to Godfrew and nodded his head toward the bread. "A little, Master Wulf. Enough to kill the butterflies."
Godfrew cut off a lump of bread and passed it to the lad. "You are all right about tonight?"
"I have been on raids before, but only to hold the horses. Yes, I will be all right. I just wish we could go now and not wait."
"I've already said that," interjected Bjorn who had taken the whetstone from Dragon's-breath and was sharpening his own sword with it.
"Gentlemen, we will go when we are ready and that is not now. Ragnor, you will be in the wain floor."
"Wagon," interpreted Bjorn.
"The wain wagon has a false floor. You, Bjorn, Dragon's-breath, Clunn and Tosti will hide in there when we go to the hamlet."
"Don't worry, little redhead, I will be next to you, giving you courage," assured Clunn.
"Courage I will take. Any of your filthy tricks, I won't. Keep your hands and that smelly thing of yours away from me."
"Oh, thing?" mimicked Clunn in a poor representation of Dunstan's accent.
"You know what I mean, Rat."
"Oh, I hope to have better drains to scuttle up than yours, copper knob."
"Clunn! Remember what I said!" Godfrew's voice had a hard edge to it.
"Yes, Master Wulf. I remember." Clunn's smirk hinted that he may yet chose to ignore Godfrew, given the chance.
Godfrew got the distinct impression that Clunn was winding him up, so he left the band and sought out Dunstan and Tosti. They were watching the hamlet. The watchers were only a hundred paces away, but the trees and bushes were so dense that all sound of the others was gone. Dunstan sat behind a bush, his back against a tree, asleep. Tosti lay on his stomach at the very edge of the undergrowth.
Godfrew joined him. "How did you know it was me and not a Norman?"
"Because a Norman would be on a horse and he would not make half as much noise as you did, Master Wulf." Tosti, despite his Norse name, was dark with a beard and moustache that consisted of a few thin sprigs of hair kept in place by grease. "Have you been watching the hamlet too, Master Wulf?" Tosti kept his light, grey eyes on the hamlet and its folk.
"A little, Tosti." Godfrew wriggled further forward and squinted, trying to see clearly. Giving up, he took a fallen leaf, made a small hole in it and peered through the hole, using it to sharpen his distant vision. Tosti turned and watched. "A trick, Tosti, for those who lack your long sight."
"Ah, I see."
"Better than me no doubt."
Tosti giggled. "Indeed, Master Wulf. You know, you don't realise what a lot of activity people get up to in a day with so little result. I've been watching them." He indicated the hamlet and its population. "I've been watching them all morning and most of the afternoon. They have hustled and bustled about, but very little has been achieved. A bit of garden has been dug, some wood chopped, animals moved, washing done. But nothing important, nothing meaningful. Is life always like that I wonder?"
Godfrew rolled onto his back and closed his eyes. "You are wasted here. You should have joined a monastery and become a great philosopher priest."
"Ah, no. Ladies. I need ladies."
"In one so young?" Godfrew rolled back onto his stomach and observed the young man beside him. "You could not do without the ladies until you became a Bishop and could afford a mistress?"
"In these parts, Bishops have their mistresses, but priests have wives. Ask Nathan the house carl. Across the border, the Welsh clerics all marry. No, it's not being clergy. It's the spending of time thinking when I want excitement. I crave ladies and fighting-preferably both-one after the other and in no particular order. Hmm. I love the wrench in the guts when you get into a fight. Don't you, Master Wulf?" Tosti still kept his eyes on the hamlet.
"Sometimes, but not often. I always seem to come off worse for wear."
"And you have been chosen by Earl Edric the Wild to lead us?"
"I am still alive. Despite having two shires declare me outlaw, I am still free. I can't be that bad can I?"
"I hope not. Still, as long as it is exciting. We all have to die some day."
"But not today. Not if I can avoid it. My wife is with child. I fully intend to see it born. Go and get some food, Tosti. Stretch your legs. I will stay here with our sleeping friend, Dunstan, and keep watch."
The day slipped into evening. Godfrew watched the boy chase the Billy goat and ride it. He had also seen the boy get a thrashing from the goat herd when he caught him. Apart from that, all had been quite, except for Dunstan talking in his sleep. Now, with the light just fading, it was time to move. Godfrew gently kicked Dunstan, but nothing happened, so he shook him and the big man stirred.
"Adia, darling, I'm sorry." Dunstan reached out and started to embrace Godfrew. "I know the girl is having a baby, but I didn't mean to ..." Dunstan broke out of his dream with a start. "Wulf? Oh, I am sorry. I thought I was back in Mordon with thing."
"Sorry, Dunstan, only me. It's time to move. Come on." Dunstan got up and followed Godfrew back through the bushes to the hay wain. Bjorn had harnessed the horses and put them in the shafts. Dragon's-breath's heavy cart horse towered over Bjorn's. The horse's made an ill-matched pair.
"Are you sure they will pull together, Bjorn? They look out of balance."
"Too late now. You should have said something earlier." Bjorn stood by the head of his nag. "I said I didn't think it was a good idea. We can still call it off. I know another place just over the way."
"That's one of Earl Edric's holdings," reminded Dunstan.
"Is it? Didn't use to be. Everything keeps changing. I should have given all this up years ago."
"It's Earl Edric's. So?" asked Clunn the Rat. "What's the problem? As long as there is killing to be done and women to be consoled."
"Clunn, my evil smelly rat. If you raided one of Edric the Wild's holdings he would be wild indeed. I believe he would remove not only your last precious gem, but he would cut up your pet adder. The time has come to move. Bjorn, never mind the horses, Dragon's-breath, stop sharpening your sword before you wear it all away. Clunn, slide into your rat hole. You too, Ragnor and Tosti." Godfrew strode to the tail gate and helped them all in. Seeing them settled, he pulled up the tail gate and slid the pins in place. "Dunstan, get this thing on the road. Come on, Stanley. Mount up. Just all look tired and worn out. We must not look a threat to anyone."
The hay wain lurched off. Dunstan had to pull continually to the right in order to hold Dragon's-breath's big mare in check. With the lowering sun shining behind them, they came out of the woods and travelled over half the way to the hamlet before they were seen. The goat herd saw them first and ran off calling out. They were only a few paces from the first of the mean cottages when the mounted men stopped them.
There were three of them. The leader was taller than the others. He was dressed as an Englishman and wore the long moustaches favoured by the English. When he spoke, it was with a heavy and thick French accent. "Say why you here." The leader had a boar spear which he had couched. On his left arm, he carried a light, rounded shield.
"Ah, Master." Godfrew rode slowly forward, stopping only when the spear was raised and aimed at his chest. "We've been sent forth by our master to try and find some feed for his kine." Godfrew was good at accents and his Herefordshire one was faultless despite his short time in the district. "Would you have any you could spare him, Master?"
"I spare no one nothing." The Frenchman leaned forward and moved Godfrew's cloak out of the way with the point of his spear, obviously looking to see if there was a mail coat underneath. "Who your master."
"Thing, Master. My master be Thing."
"Thing? Who this thing?" The Frenchman turned to his companions: "Thing?"
"Could be Thingfirth. He is sometimes called Thing. Not to his face though, Master."
"No matter." The Frenchman faced Godfrew again. "No sale. You go way. Now."
"Water the horses? They're tired. At least, let us water the horses," Godfrew whined. "Please, Master? Water?"
The Frenchman looked at the horses. Bjorn's nag was in a lather. Dragon's-breath's horse was stomping and fidgeting in the shaft. "Water. Only water." He turned again to his companions. "Water only. You stay with them. Watch. Yes?"
"Yes, Master. We'll watch." The Frenchman rode off toward his hall, a building only a little better than the cottages of the hamlet. "All right you. You heard what the Master said. Water only. Follow us." The two remaining riders escorted the hay wain to the well and the stone trough in front of it. Stanley stood with the horses and watered them while Dunstan engaged the escort in conversation, a thing he was very good at. Godfrew walked to the rear of the wain and pulled the pins near the tailgate. The false floor dropped down at an angle and the concealed men slid out. The first thing that the escorts were aware of was falling, as Clunn cut the girth straps on their saddles and gave their feet an upward shove. Both of them fell to the ground. Dunstan and Stanley quickly dispatched them. Stanley grinned from ear to ear at his first kill.
"Dunstan, Bjorn. Get the stock." Godfrew reversed his cloak, pulling the wolf mask down over his face. "The rest of you come on."
"I don't know about leaving my pony. It's been good to me. There are years left in her yet."
"Take the bloody thing and the wain. I'm after cattle. Cattle is thing." Dunstan grabbed an unsaddled horse and, with an agility he shouldn't have had with his bulk, vaulted onto its back.
"Money," clarified Bjorn. "I suppose I could cut the traces. I suppose I had better bring Dragon's-breath's horse too." Bjorn used his knife to free the horses and Dragon's-breath's ran away to find her master, joined by the dark pony. "I'll tie Stanley's horse up, just in case."
"Come on, Bjorn. Thing!"
"Indeed. Thing, Dunstan. Thing."
Clunn and Tosti headed for a small chapel, but the rest stayed with Godfrew as he made for the Frenchman's house. It had a staked fence around it, but many stakes had fallen down. There were burn marks on others. As they entered the yard, a man made as though to challenge them, but Dragon's-breath cut him down with a swinging stroke from his sword. Another also saw them, but dived through a hole in the fence. The door to the house was ajar as the band entered. They spread out through the house, slaying only when they had to. The Frenchman was in the pantry.
"Ah, Master Frog. I remember my Master's name now. It is Edric the Wild."
"Edric? Bastard." The Frenchman lunged at Godfrew, Ragnor stuck him in the chest with his saxe. The blow was well aimed. It took the man in the heart and he died instantly. A woman came in, saw the dead man and screamed. Another joined her.
"Why you, Wolfshead? Why?"
"He is Norman. This is our land."
"He came here at King Edward's invitation. He stayed here at King Harold's invitation. He married a local girl. This is his wife. She was born here. What right have you to do this?" The woman tried to restrain and comfort the Frenchman's distraught wife.
"This is England, not France. Get out of here and take her with you," the wolf replied. "This place will be purged by fire. Tell your neighbours that Edric the Wild has loosed his wolf pack. Those not the friends of Edric had best move out before we visit them. NOW GO!" Ragnar bustled the women out. "Scavenge, my wolves. Scavenge, then burn. We have but little time."
The house was small and rather poor. Plundering its treasures took little time, burning it even less. No one from the hamlet interfered. They ran. It seemed that the evacuation was well practised.
First the band gathered what horses they could find, then they returned to the well and were joined by Clunn and Tosti.
"Where have you two been. We may have needed you," the wolf growled.
"Is that you under there, Master Wulf? Very appropriate. Where have we been? Look!" Clunn threw an alter cloth on the ground and unwrapped two candlesticks. A chalice and a small gold cross also rolled out. "Who would have thought this place would have such as these, eh? He should have spent more on armed men and less on these baubles."
"Pick it up. Come on, let's get going." Godfrew found the dark pony at his shoulder. "Get a horse. Get mounted. Let's get out of here before they realise there are so few of us. Stanley, fire the hay wain."
They rode out under cover of the burning wain and the fired hay rick nearby. At the clearing, they took stock. Dunstan and Bjorn had brought out some twenty head of cattle. There was the small treasure from the house and, of course, the plunder from the church.
"Well, Master Wulf," Clunn stretched out on the ground by the little pile of treasure. "I think the church provided for us best of all. Materially and spiritually."
"Yes. We found a female anchorite in the chapel. She provided spiritual comfort for both myself and young Tosti here."
"Clunn!" Godfrew stood over the small man. "I said no rape."
"Oh, it wasn't rape. She quite enjoyed it. Seems she used to be the local Abbot's bit of stuff till he found a new novice to play with. Put her away so to speak. Seems she missed the comfort of a man's company. You should have seen the smile on her face when we left!" Clunn put his hands behind his head and smiled up at Godfrew.
"You went with a woman after the rat had had her?" an incredulous Stanley asked Tosti.
"Before. Following him is the last thing any sane man would do. But he is right. She did have a big smile on her face!"
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